Inside the Hype, Doubts of Minor League Baseball's Home Run King

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Inside the Hype, Doubts of Minor League Baseball's Home Run King
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FRISCO, Texas — Joey Gallo, the Texas Rangers’ hulky Double-A third baseman, described leading the minor leagues in home runs last season as “kind of a one-of-kind thing,” then shrugged indifferently at the prospect of repeating the feat this year to become the first to do so since 1972-73 (note: Kevin Witt played in Japan in 2005, leading the minors in homers in 2004 and 2006).

“It doesn’t really matter to me,” the 6’5”, 230-pounder said one afternoon last week while seated in the Frisco RoughRiders’ dugout. Entering Wednesday's play, the 20-year-old has belted 38 homers between Frisco and Myrtle Beach of the High-A Carolina League. That is good for just one behind Kris Bryant, third baseman for the Chicago Cubs’ Triple-A Iowa club in the Pacific Coast League. Bryant hit No. 39 on Tuesday evening.

Gallo said his sole interest in the race is competing with a familiar face from back home in Las Vegas. The 22-year-old Bryant played alongside Gallo’s older brother while growing up, and their fathers work together operating a baseball instructional school.

Gallo would become the first to go back to back with minor league home run crowns since Jim Fuller of the Baltimore Orioles organization, and Fuller played at Triple-A and Double-A those years. It’s difficult to say that would earn more fame than hitting a promotional Chevy truck during batting practice before this year’s All-Star Futures Game at Target Field in Minneapolis.

There are other numbers that have intrigued Gallo watchers since he entered pro ball as the 39th overall pick in the supplemental round in 2012. His strikeout rate of 36.8 percent in 2013, his first full season of pro ball, prompted detailed scrutiny. The figure has dropped overall this season to 32.9 percent, but it’s 40.4 for his 53 games with Frisco.

Consider that last year’s major league leader in strikeouts, Chris Carter of the Houston Astros, fanned in 36.2 percent of his plate appearances. Chicago White Sox first baseman Adam Dunn, the 2012 pacesetter, struck out 34.2 percent of the time that year and has gone down swinging in 28.5 percent of his plate appearances during his career.

“I always tell people I could shorten up and chop balls to shortstop all day and strike out only 20 percent of the time,” Gallo said, “but I’m going to go up and keep trying to drive the ball. I’ve always had one swing my whole life, so it’s kind of the swing I know.”

The splits of Gallo’s .249 batting average with Frisco are .268 against right-handers and .188 against lefties. With 78.8 percent of his at-bats coming against righties, 76.5 percent of his homers have come against them but only 68.1 percent of his strikeouts.

Mike Daly, senior director of Texas’ minor league operations, expressed satisfaction with Gallo’s season.

“His size, his strength—he has as much bat speed as anybody in baseball,” Daly said. “I think Joey will even tell you he was chasing home runs [last year]. Just controlling the strike zone better is something Joey knew he had to work on, like the great hitters do.”

Todd Guggiana, the amateur scout who has covered Las Vegas for Texas since 1997, echoed Daly’s stance.

“He’s surpassed what we’d thought,” said Guggiana, based in Long Beach, California. “He’s going to strike out. He’s a bigger guy. They’re going to have more holes in their swing.”

Gallo could also oddly lead two leagues in homers this year. The 21 that he hit for Myrtle Beach are four ahead of Winston-Salem’s Courtney Hawkins with 19 games left. His 17 for Frisco trail Corpus Christi’s Telvin Nash by one with 18 games remaining.

If he wins the Carolina League title despite leaving in mid-June, Gallo said, “That would be pretty crazy.”

According to Gerry Fraley of The Dallas Morning News, the most recent hitter to achieve that double was Fred Sington in 1934 in the Class B Southeastern League and Class C Middle Atlantic League. Sington’s accomplishment came with an asterisk. The Southeastern League folded in late May that year, and he topped that home run “race” with six.

Gallo also pitched in high school, at Bishop Gorman, and reportedly hit 100 mph. He might have been drafted higher if projected as a pitcher but indicated he wanted to play every day.

Another contemporary from Gallo’s youth baseball days in Vegas is Washington Nationals All-Star Bryce Harper, 21. They didn’t play for the same high school but were hitting-pitching teammates on club and select teams.

“No one would catch Bryce except Joey,” his father, Tony Gallo, said. “No one would catch Joey except Bryce.”

More name-dropping: Gallo works out in the offseason back home with the Cleveland Indians’ Jason Giambi and the Colorado Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki.

As for the windshield-smashing episode in Minnesota, Gallo said he didn’t see the ball hit. He was still hitting and got wind of what happened a few minutes later from the surrounding media.

“Then on the big screen, they showed the truck,” Gallo said. “I felt bad.”

He would have felt worse if the shot had struck his parents, who happened to be standing in the nearby plaza. Tony Gallo estimated he and wife Laura were about 15 feet away.

“I’m really amazed no one got hit because most people were just milling around,” said Tony, a former Montreal Expos minor leaguer who is a full-time pitching instructor. “I told them that was my son.”

Then, during the game, Gallo hit one past the truck.

With Tony involved in baseball instruction and Laura being a computer analyst, the Gallos often send their son CDs that show differences in his swing.

“Sometimes, he tries to do a little too much,” Tony said. “There’s a little bit of pressure on him; he knows he’s a top prospect. Then he backs off, and he gets on another hot streak.”

If you think a third baseman of Gallo’s size is unusual, he was a 6’4” shortstop as a junior at Bishop Gorman. (Bryant plays third at 6’5”, 215.) Gallo was moved to third under the assumption no big league organization would draft a shortstop that large.

He said he wants to stay at third, and Daly said the Rangers want him there. Gallo has played two games at first base for Frisco at the request of the Rangers’ hierarchy.

RoughRiders manager Jason Wood, a former major league infielder, said Gallo’s size hasn’t hurt his agility at third and he has also looked comfortable at first.

Wood said Gallo, who hit a walk-off homer in his Frisco debut in June, has accepted all that’s required of a newcomer. That includes sharing a seat on the bus.

“On long road trips, that’s not something you really want to do,” Wood said. “Big Joey has to sit with somebody.”

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Gallo’s season has been followed closely by Rangers fans who have seen Texas plummet this year from no worse than a postseason contender during the past four campaigns—with two World Series appearances—to contending for the majors’ worst record.

Eric Nadel, Rangers radio broadcaster since 1979, said he has sensed minimal fan clamoring to promote Gallo to the majors when rosters expand September 1 since there’s no postseason berth on the line.

“People are more educated about 40-man roster status and the fact that it might be better for the player not to see big league pitching at this stage of his career,” Nadel said.

Gallo isn’t on Texas’ 40-man roster, and Frisco will play at least a week into September in the Texas League playoffs.

“When Joey’s ready, he will certainly move up,” Daly said. “Things always tend to work out.”

Said Gallo: “They don’t ever talk about that with me. I wouldn’t think it would be anytime this year. Finish out here at least and see how that goes.”

Fraley reported that Rangers general manager Jon Daniels on Sunday addressed the possibility of a September call-up, expressing his belief that the slugger needed more time.

If fans must wait until 2015 to feast their eyes on Gallo's light-tower power, we'll then see if it's ultimately worth the wait.

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